Hunger-striking Venezuelan farmer dies at 49
BY JIM WYSS
During his six-year quest to force the government to return his land, Venezuelan farmer Franklin Brito sewed his mouth shut, amputated a finger and went on at least eight punishing hunger strikes.
On Monday night, an emaciated Brito, 49, died in Venezuela's Military Hospital, his family said. El Universal newspaper reported that he weighed a mere 77 pounds.
It marked the first time that a hunger striker had died on President Hugo Chávez's 11-year watch. And the president's foes said they hoped Brito's death would resonate as this nation braces for parliamentary elections Sept. 26 that could break the ruling party's stranglehold.
"This does not mean that Franklin Brito is dead,'' his family wrote in a statement. "Franklin lives on as the Venezuelan people fight for property rights, access to justice, freedom and to make the government respect human rights.''
Venezuelan officials said the government had tried to keep Brito alive. They added that the state had tried to find a solution for Brito, who claimed the government had expropriated his farm in the name of land reform.
During a campaign stop in Caracas on Tuesday, Chávez suggested that Brito's death wouldn't change state policy, according to state media.
"The counter-revolution says we are taking peoples' land,'' Chávez said. "It's the other way around. They are the ones who are taking peoples' property by making it private.''
On Tuesday, Venezuela's exile community in South Florida compared Brito to Cuban hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died in February.
Brito's death has to be considered state-sponsored murder, said José Antonio Colina, the director general of Veppex, a group for Venezuelan political exiles.
During a news conference, Colina asked Venezuela's opposition to not let Brito's passing be in vain.
"The political leadership has to capitalize on this situation come September 26,'' he said. "People need to not only vote, but defend their vote, to keep this socialist regime from becoming more radical.''
Polls suggest Chávez's allies and the opposition are almost evenly divided heading into the race. But new rules governing how votes are counted in each district mean Chávez supporters are likely to hold onto their majority.
While Brito's death came as a shock in Caracas, the population has become inured to bad news, said Herbert Koeneke, a political analyst at the Simón Bolivar University in Caracas.
"This is just one more case that illustrates the government's willingness to trample on private property,'' he said.
"Brito's case is another warning to people about what's happening in the country,'' Koeneke said.
Brito began his public battle against the government in 2004 after local authorities in the southern state of Bolivar gave neighboring farmers the green-light to take over his property.
Such takeovers are not uncommon, as the government has reclaimed fallow and under-utilized land in the name of boosting food production and helping the landless. Over the past eight years, the administration has seized more than 5 million acres of farmland, the Associated Press reported.
Brito always claimed that his land was taken as a result of a personal vendetta with the local mayor, but government officials said Tuesday that Brito never had clear title to the land.
In 2009, the government agreed to remove the invaders and even gave the family agricultural credits and a tractor. But because the authorities presented the decision as a favor, leaving him in a legal limbo, Brito resumed his protest.
In December, while on hunger strike in front of the Organization of American States, police took Brito to the military hospital against his will.